When coronavirus hit, fashion, an industry known for its ability to make people dream, suddenly changed gear.
Designers started making face masks, perfumers switched to manufacturing hand sanitiser. And we stayed home, clapped, and realised that getting dressed in the morning could help our mood swings. (In my case, choosing to wear an impractical Peter Pan collar blouse felt like a small act of resistance when the days started to melt into one another.)
Now was not the time for expensive clothes and airbrushed shoots: it was like the real world had finally come into sharp focus.
And then, slowly, countries came out of lockdown just in time for summer — and fashion was ready to spread its wings once again. No wonder: July hosts the highlight of the fashion dreamer’s calendar.
This is the week when journalists, It-girls, VIP clients and stylists descend upon Parisian cobblestones to attend the couture shows.
Haute couture is the corner of fashion that is meant to give you goosebumps. It is as close to art as clothes can get, a showcase of one-of-a-kind pieces with exquisite detail, reserved for the few who can afford a dress that costs the price of a small flat (yes, those people do exist).
July’s couture calendar typically features extravagant shows by Chanel, Dior and Giambattista Valli — and I always attended enviable after-parties with fashion’s global crème de la crème, flying around the world with the fashion cognoscenti. Burning air-miles, changing outfits, keeping my followers on Instagram on the road with me.
To many, it feels non-inclusive and obsolete. But like ready-to-wear, couture is a lucrative enterprise that employs hundreds of thousands: artisans, photographers, producers, set designers, models and light technicians, those unsung stars of the creative sphere. Not to mention the hotels, taxis, terraces and shops that must feel very empty this year.
This July shows were banned so couturiers have taken their work online — and I was granted access to interview them as part of a special project.
The idea was to help amplify their collections, but also record a time-capsule of this moment when these maestros of thread were forced to create masterpieces out of nothing, using dead stock and Zoom meetings. The great house of Chanel opened its locked doors to documentarian Loïc Prigent to film the petites mains, or seamstresses, at work.
Unanimously, these creative forces told me they were reinventing what high fashion means. Valli said that any designer who goes back to making clothes in exactly the same way that they were pre-pandemic would have missed the mark. Imane Ayissi, the first African to have landed a spot on the elite schedule, told me that although creating his second collection without an audience felt like an anticlimax, he believes in fashion’s ability to drive political and social change.
The most innovative idea came from Dior (a show I’d refused to miss two years ago, even with a broken foot). Maria Grazia Chiuri and her atelier referenced Théâtre de la Mode, an exhibition that took place after the Second World War ended, when Parisian designers created mannequins one-third of the size of human scale to address the need for rationing textile, leather, and so on.
To me this collection encapsulates all the poetry of fashion — and, dare I say, it almost feels like an eco-friendly option for couture aficionados. The shows must go on! The sense of urgency of this phrase has always felt familiar.
It is 2018 and I am hobbling past Rodin’s The Kiss. (I am sure statues have learned better social distancing now.) It was, to put it plainly, dumb to insist on attending a show fresh out of surgery on my foot, especially because it turned out I needed another operation and was to be grounded at home, unable to walk, for weeks on end.
Yet when I look back, that summer of immobility taught me so much. Specifically, that the hardest part of feeling like your life is not moving anymore is the aftermath. There is no back to normal: this is where the real works starts.
The shows can’t go on, not in the normal way, because the industry was running at a crazy pace and destroying the planet in its wake. Because investigations into supply chains have revealed that huge brands are producing overpriced goods in sweatshop-like conditions. Because employees and consumers have found their voice, demanding that big fashion groups put an end to systemic racism, with allegations ranging from daily micro-aggressions to wrongful terminations on the basis of racial bias popping up all over social media. Why would we want fashion to go back to normal when it still has so much to work on?
Creativity is not dead, all the couturiers proved it this week. Many, many players are ready to put in the work. And we must do our bit too.